Fraser Smith has seen all sorts of changes at Ōtūru School in his 20 years there, the last 19 of them as principal, but nothing compared to what was celebrated last week.

The school opened its gates to all early on Thursday morning after a total rebuild, all that remains of what was there before being the principal's house, a small shed and the pool. The rest, including a gymnasium, a large kitchen and the classrooms, is brand spanking new.

Mr Smith said the community's response to the vision he, board of trustees chairman Pat Heta and the teaching staff shared for the development of a very hands-on, experience-based teaching and learning environment had been to lift the roll from 66 to 186 in three years.

"We ran out of space," he said.

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"Our kitchen became a classroom. So did our library. The ministry offered us a hall and another classroom, but digging behind the murals on the walls of our old prefabs they found they were well beyond their use-by date and rotting away, so a plan was formed to build a new school."

The process of planning and gaining approval for the rebuild had taken five years, throughout which the teachers and students suffered cold, leaky buildings. The students had played their part too, working with the architects.

"They had some fantastic concepts," he said, "but their ideas were gradually trimmed back to save money until we got what we have now — rooms with excellent acoustics, warm or cool as we want them. The buildings link together well. We have more space, space that flows, and an opportunity to teach differently in flexible environments. And we have a kitchen and a wharekai because that is what we do here.

"We have a fantastic teaching team working together in collaboration. Teachers shifted the old school into the new, carried everything across, cleaned it up and set it up again for the new year. A fantastic effort that took over half the summer holidays.

"We have a bright future out here on the edge of Kaitaia, where, 50 years ago, Ōtūru Māori School was nearly closed through lack of pupils. The Ōtūru community saved the school by bringing in mokopuna from further away to boost the roll."

Ōtūrutanga was defined in the plan for the future, however, so even if the old school had mostly disappeared, the spirit and style of learning developed over the last 20 years would carry on.

"We have plans with our students to replant our grounds (with) new fruiting trees and gardens. We will replace the wrecked hothouses with new and better ones. We can start again, but this time it will be to a plan, instead of higgeldy piggeldy, pop-up planting," Mr Smith added.

"Ōtūrutanga means teaching the whole child, giving children responsibility and choice in their learning. It means music and the arts, and problem-solving around real life situations. We still teach reading, writing and maths, but we like to apply those subjects to life as much as we can so the skills learnt are useful in the future for our young Ōtūru graduates. We want our kids to see the purpose of their learning ...

"So we have a new set of buildings on whenua that has been totally turned on its head, but the plan is to carry on as we started, just do it better. Plan the planting, build new hothouses, put our beehives in a better spot.

"Thanks must go out to our community for supporting us on this journey. Thanks to our Ōtūru whānau, Poppa George for lending us our new playing field. Thanks to the Kiwikiwi whānau for encouraging us to plant natives on our extended boundary. Thanks to Ōtūru Marae for the continued partnership for over 90 years. Thanks to our awesome teaching team ...

"Thanks to all of you who have given to this school over the years. Once a part of this community you remain a part of it. We have reaped our reward. And thanks to the Ministry of Education for recognising and supporting our dreams for our children by making this possible."